Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453
The Prisoner of Chillon is a dramatic monologue written after Byron and Shelley visited the Castle of Chillon in Switzerland, where a priest, François Bonivard, was imprisoned for six years for expressing democratic ideals rooted in his religious doctrine. Impressed by Bonivard’s courageous and principled struggle against the cruelty and tyranny of his captors, Byron used the story to comment further on his already characteristic themes of isolation, liberty, oppression, and conviction.
The poem opens with the “Sonnet on Chillon,” which reveals, both in content and in style, the influence of Shelley on Byron’s work and thought at this time in his career. Byron celebrates the site of Bonivard’s imprisonment as consecrated ground, and he praises in exalted and idealistic tones the futility of attempts to constrict the true and free spirit.
The remainder of the poem is told from the first-person perspective of Bonivard himself. Although Byron deviates somewhat from the historical record, this poem represents the first example of Byron using a real person as his protagonist. Bonivard’s father and five of his brothers have already perished as a result of this persecution of their faith. Two of them were imprisoned with Bonivard: the youngest brother, sweet of disposition, with tears only for the pain of others; the older brother an active man, strong and courageous. Both of the brothers died while the three of them were chained to huge pillars in the dark Gothic dungeon. Alone and the last survivor of his family, Bonivard then fell into a deep despair, his senses dulled, losing any concept of time, unaware of darkness or light.
In an almost conventional Romantic moment, Bonivard’s despair is interrupted by the arrival of a songbird. The prisoner speculates, with the last vestiges of optimism, that the bird may also have been imprisoned in a cage and has managed to escape. Perhaps, he speculates, the bird might in fact be his brother’s soul visiting him with messages of hope. When the bird flies away, however, Bonivard feels more alone than ever. Yet miraculously, his captors begin to treat him with more compassion, allowing him to walk around in his cell unchained. He climbs up the wall, not to try to escape but merely to get a glimpse through the barred windows of the mountains once again. The beauty of this sight again makes his imprisonment seem even more unbearable. After an indeterminate length of time—days, months, even years—Bonivard is released. The freedom is a hollow victory, however, since he has lost all that is dear to him, and he had come to consider the prison his home. Even the chains and the spiders seemed to be his friends.